Rural payment problems caused by slow system performance, says minister

Environment secretary Liz Truss has revealed that system performance issues forced the rural payments digital service to resort to paper forms

Secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Liz Truss, has revealed that system performance issues were the cause of the problems that forced the rural payments digital service to resort to paper forms. But she insisted that the core functionality of the system does work.

Speaking at a hearing of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Truss said the decision last week to ask farmers to use paper forms instead of the £154m digital service was made because the system was so slow there was not enough time left before the EU deadline to register all famers’ claims.

“It didn’t have the capacity to take very many users at the same time,” she told MPs. “We knew it was functional but very slow.”

A software upgrade intended to fix the performance problems did not work. “The fix put on the system did not have the desired effect – in fact, it had the opposite effect,” said Truss.

She said the core system is working and that staff at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) are able to enter details on behalf of farmers, even if those farmers now have to complete claims on paper.

RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw told the committee: “The core system is up and running perfectly well.” He said that after the update did not work, the department “decided to pause” the digital mapping part of the service.

“Nothing has been scrapped. We have postponed the development of the mapping element of the portal,” added Grimshaw.

Read more about the rural payments IT problems

But Truss would not confirm whether the digital mapping system would still be used by farmers for future claims after this year’s process.

“These continue to be open questions,” she said, citing the focus on this year’s revised 15 June deadline as the current priority. “We took a pragmatic decision when one part of the system was not working.”

Grimshaw said that the web portal was “a relatively small part” of the overall system, but acknowledged it was the major aspect used by farmers.

Truss said that £33m of the £154m, 10-year budget for the system was spent in the 2013/14 financial year, but was unable to provide figures for the cost of moving to paper forms this year. 

She said the RPA has to “put more human resources in” for staff to enter information into the system, but was unable to estimate the cost. Grimshaw said "it won't be that expensive" because the RPA can use surplus budget left over at the end of this financial year, which concludes next month.

Grimshaw said the core system – a rules engine provided by an Italian software firm Abaco – is used to support rural payments under the Common Agricultural Policy in other EU countries, but the digital mapping tool developed by supplier Kainos that UK farmers were told to use was not offered in other countries.

Computer Weekly revealed last week that even with very few farmers using the system, back-end servers would quickly reach 100% utilisation and “fall over”.

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